By: Aaron Goren, University of Vermont, Hasbara Fellow
The day I returned from Birthright, there was a terrible terror attack in Jerusalem. A truck plowed into a group of IDF soldiers in the Old City. A parking lot where I had stood near just a day earlier was the site of this heinous crime against Jews by a Palestinian terrorist. A soldier who was on our Birthright trip lost her best friend in this attack, and suddenly, the conflict was much closer and more personal than I’d ever seen. A few days earlier, we had sat in a hotel in Jerusalem to listen to a speaker talk about the heated days of the second intifada, where suicide bombers and other personnel maimed Israeli civilians almost every other day. However, I sat in that hotel room assured that the days of constant terror were behind the state of Israel. I was wrong. It was the first time that I had seen at an almost personal level the targeting of Jews simply for existing, and it has stuck with me since that day.
I knew that I wanted to join the IDF at that point. I wanted to fight for the Jewish people in a far away land that I suddenly found to be a lot closer. I immediately started reading, writing, and researching about Israel- the politics, the wars, the heroes, and the villains. I wanted to be back. One week was not nearly enough. So, I did what any slightly crazed Zionist would do: I researched cheap Israel trips. Hasbara came into my sights. I spoke about it to my IACT professional at the University of Vermont Hillel, and she said to apply, and that it would be good for me. So That’s what I did.
I was ecstatic when my application was accepted. I finished the semester strong at UVM, and prepared for what I knew would be another life changing experience in Israel. What followed for the next 16 days was a wild ride of fear, anger, passion, which accompanied fights, arguments and conversations about the politics, people and places of Israel. Does that sound unattractive to you? Well, I’ll also tell you this. I learned so much more than I ever thought was possible in those two weeks about Israel. I saw things I may never get the chance to see again, like the Gaza border, and the bomb shelters of Sderot. I experienced things that I’ve never felt before.
One day on the trip, we were visiting Sderot, a town close to the Gaza border. After being warned that mortars were dropping a mile and a half from where we were, shot from inside Gaza at civilians in Israel, and to be wary of a red alert siren, we were promptly shuffled to the Western Wall for Shabbat. As we were praying and singing in a more traditionally religious part of the Western Wall, my friend, who had come to know that I was not the most religious person and felt a little out of place, took my arm and told me to follow him. We entered a large room full of intimidating, armed IDF soldiers. Feeling even slightly more out of place than before, I questioned my friend taking me there. But then something incredible happened. The soldiers saw us, a couple civilian, American Jews, and told us to join their dance circle. We danced and sang Shabbat songs for a good hour with these fellow Jews, protectors of Israel. It was incredible. It’s experiences like these that make Israel such a special place.
I also met some of the most talented, thoughtful, and kind people I’ve ever met on this trip, all of whom I am still in contact with, nearly a year later to the day. This trip is the best program available for furthering your knowledge of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and for bettering yourself as an Israel educator on your own campus. I still am going to join the IDF in a few months when I graduate, but for now, it’s nice to know I have the knowledge and skills to fight for Israel here in America.